Accessibility links

Breaking News

Kids' Brains Need More Downtime, Research Shows

FILE - Teenagers goof off as the sun sets in Encinitas, California, March 31, 2014.
FILE - Teenagers goof off as the sun sets in Encinitas, California, March 31, 2014.

Children and teenagers have become busier than ever. But neurologists and psychologists say pushing kids to be constantly learning and practicing, even during summer vacation, is not good for them.

Strength vs. weaknesses

Helping children succeed and thrive is one of the issues psychologist Lea Waters has been researching for two decades. In her book, The Strength Switch, she suggests that parents focus on building up their child's strengths rather than fixing their weaknesses.

"If you're only focusing on what's wrong with your child, what's missing, what needs to be fixed, really the best results you can ever hope for is to take them from weakness to above average. But if you start putting more of your time and attention as a parent on what's right, amplifying their strength, that's when they really reach their full potential."

Waters calls this approach the strength-based parenting. But she cautions that sometimes parents can go overboard trying "to get them extra tutoring, to get them into ... every class possible and potentially risking over-structuring their life with the idea that practice equals building the strength. In some senses that's true, but it's only partly true."

The result is often an overcrowded schedule, keeping kids' brains constantly busy with learning, gathering information and practicing.

"Yes, practice builds up strength, but so does downtime," she said.

What other experts find

Waters' book is mainly based on her research in positive psychology, parenting and education at the University of Melbourne, Australia. She also refers to a variety of studies by other researchers.

She cites Deena Weisberg and her colleagues at Columbia University who have studied play curriculum and what happens to a child's well-being and ability to think when play is deliberately incorporated into the school environment.

"And I love Kathy Hirsh-Pasek's research at Temple University on not overscheduling your kids. She's really influenced the way I parent my kids personally," Waters added.

"I love Mary Helen Immordino-Yang's research. She's a professor of education, psychology and neuroscience at the University of Southern California. She's done a lot of work on the idea that our brains have two alternative systems."

Brain's default mode

The brain's two alternative modes or networks are on-task focus and free-form attention.

Researcher Immordino-Yang says the on-task focus is about perceiving one's environment, watching and paying attention. That happens when you play sports, for example.

"You need to be watching other people on your team, and running fast and coordinating emotions and reacting to the things you're perceiving," Immordino-Yang explained. "Then, there is another network that's extremely important for being able to make sense of what you're doing. This network seems to be deactivated when people are sort of playing sports and attending to the outside and it's activated when you're resting and just daydreaming, thinking about your memories, imagining things that don't exist here and now. You need both modes of attention in order to function as a person in the world."

Psychologist Waters says slowing down actually helps kids reach their full potential.

"It's a little bit like if you have too many programs running on your computer," Waters said. "Your computer starts to slow down. And when you shut these programs down, the computer speeds up again. It's very much like that for the child's brain."

Goofing off

Waters says machines need to reboot and kids need to goof off.

"What I mean by goofing off is really allowing kids to have some downtime, where they are not focused on any specific task, something that they choose to do like shooting baskets, or doing a creative project, or cooking," she said. "It's a project they're interested in doing that they can do it automatically and get enjoyment from."

Goofing off doesn't mean the brain becomes inactive.

"It goes into this default network mode and uses that time to process all the information it had during the day, to integrate the new information," she said.

Waters hopes parents understand that children don't have to be busy constantly and, instead, should be given permission to goof off every now and then.

  • 16x9 Image

    Faiza Elmasry

    Faiza Elmasry writes stories about life in America. She wrote for several newspapers and magazines in the Middle East, covering current affairs, art, family and women issues.  Faiza joined VOA after working in broadcasting in Cairo for the Egyptian Radio and Television Corporation and in Tokyo for Radio Japan.